The curious name Nyoka (pronounced nye-OH-kah) first appeared in the U.S. baby name data in 1941. Usage of the name peaked two years later:
1946: 20 baby girls named Nyoka
1945: 26 baby girls named Nyoka
1944: 28 baby girls named Nyoka
1943: 60 baby girls named Nyoka [peak: ranked 1,034th]
1942: 45 baby girls named Nyoka
1941: 5 baby girls named Nyoka [debut]
Where did this one come from? A character named Nyoka who appeared in two 15-part movie serials in the early ’40s. In the first serial, Jungle Girl (1941), Nyoka was played by Frances Gifford. In the second serial, Perils of Nyoka (1942), she was played by Kay Aldridge.
The serials were based (very loosely) upon an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel from a decade earlier called Jungle Girl. In the book, the titular jungle girl was named Fou-tan, not Nyoka.
The sudden appearance of Tondalaya in the SSA’s baby name data in the mid-1950s had me stumped for a long time.
1955: 11 baby girls named Tondalaya [debut]
Why? Because “Tondalaya” was so suspiciously close to “Tondelayo,” the name of a character from the 1942 movie* White Cargo. The character was a mixed-race African character played by Hedy Lamarr.
But the spelling didn’t match, and the timing was way off.
Finally, years later, I happened to find the link between these two things: a photo in a 1955 issue of Jet magazine that featured an 11-year-old girl named Tondalaya. Here’s what the caption said:
Paroled after five years imprisonment for disobeying Army orders while a lieutenant in Korea, Leon A. Gilbert is reunited with his wife, Kay, son Leon, and daughter Tondalaya at Los Angeles’ International Airport.
(Further research revealed that her name was actually spelled “Tondalayo.”)
So that solved the mystery of the name, but…who was Leon Gilbert?
Up until mid-1950, he was a decorated WWII veteran serving with the 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea.
But on July 31, he refused an order and was arrested on the spot.
Seems like an appropriate outcome for a disobedient soldier during wartime…until you consider that the 24th was an all-black unit, that the 24th’s commanders were all white, and that this particular order amounted to a multi-man suicide mission. (The order would have had Gilbert leading about a dozen men back to a location that had been abandoned due to heavy enemy fire.)
Leon Gilbert was court-martialed. At the trial, which lasted about four hours, no witnesses were called on Gilbert’s behalf, medical reports indicating that he suffered from acute stress reaction were ignored, and the defense attorney didn’t bother to make a closing statement. Leon Gilbert was convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad.
Back home, the case was being followed closely by the press — particularly by the black press. The sentence angered many Americans, and “petitions calling for [Gilbert’s] freedom were sent to Washington from around the country.”
An investigation carried out by NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall found that Gilbert was one of “many blacks and no white troops who had been charged with misconduct in the presence of the enemy.” He also said that “[i]t seems apparent that some of [the black soldiers] are being made scapegoats for the failures of higher personnel.”
In late November, President Harry Truman commuted the death sentence to 20 years in prison.
Ultimately — as mentioned in the photo caption — Leon Gilbert served five years in a military prison before he was released on parole in 1955.
*The movie was based on play of the same name from the 1920s. In the play, the character’s name was spelled “Tondeleyo.” The play was based on the novel Hell’s Playground (1912) by Ida Vera Simonton, but Tondeleyo did not appear in the novel. Playwright Leon Gordon created (and named) Tondeleyo by combining the attributes/histories of two of the book’s female characters, Ndio and Elinda.
Canadian writer Mazo de la Roche found fame in her late 40s when her third novel, Jalna, won first prize (and $10,000) in the first “Atlantic Novel Contest” in 1927. The book was serialized in Atlantic Monthly, then released as a standalone volume.
The book’s main characters were members of the prosperous Whiteoak family. They lived at an estate in southern Ontario called Jalna. The estate had been built by family patriarch Capt. Philip Whiteoak, a retired officer of the British Army in India. He’d named it “Jalna” after the garrison town in India where he’d met his Irish wife, Adeline.
The book was a top-10 bestseller in the U.S. in both 1927 and 1928. It was such a big commercial success that the author kept writing novels about the Whiteoaks. She ended up with a total of 16 books, now known as the “Whiteoak Chronicles,” which cover four generations (1850s-1950s) of the fictional family.
Many of de la Roche’s character names — which included Finch, Pheasant, and Wakefield/”Wake” — came directly from from gravestones in Ontario’s Newmarket cemetery.
Given the popularity of the book, and the distinctiveness of the character names, it’s not too surprising that Jalna had an influence on U.S. baby name data in the ’20s and ’30s…
Character Alayne Archer was introduced in Jalna when Eden Whiteoak, an aspiring poet, traveled to New York City to meet with a publisher. Alayne was the publisher’s assistant, and she and Eden became romantically involved.
The debut of the baby name Alayne in 1929 was due to the much-anticipated follow-up book, Whiteoaks of Jalna — specifically, to the book reviews that ran in newspapers throughout the U.S. during the second half of 1929. Many of them mentioned Alayne.
1937: 19 baby girls named Alayne
1936: 23 baby girls named Alayne
1935: 16 baby girls named Alayne
1934: 9 baby girls named Alayne
1933: 5 baby girls named Alayne
1932: 5 baby girls named Alayne
1931: 9 baby girls named Alayne
1930: 7 baby girls named Alayne
1929: 11 baby girls named Alayne [debut]
Notice how usage rose during the mid-1930s. This was due to a related reason: the movie Jalna (1935), which was based on the first book and featured actress Kay Johnson as Alayne. (By 1935, five of the 16 books were out.)
Jalna & Renny
The year after the movie came out, two more Jalna-inspired names emerged in the data. One was Jalna itself, which didn’t stick around long:
1937: 9 baby girls named Jalna
1936: 6 baby girls named Jalna [debut]
(You could compare to Jalna to Tara, the plantation in Gone with the Wind.)
The other was Renny, from Eden’s half-brother Renny Whiteoak, who became Alayne’s love interest after Alayne and Eden grew apart.
1941: 8 baby boys named Renny
1939: 5 baby boys named Renny
1937: 8 baby boys named Renny
1936: 9 baby boys named Renny [debut]
Another factor that could have given Renny a boost that year was the fifth book in the series, Young Renny, which focused on that character specifically.
…So how did Mazo de la Roche come by her own unique name?
She was born “Mazo Louise Roche” in Ontario in 1879. She added the “de la” not (necessarily) to sound noble, but to reflect the historical spelling of the family name. And here’s what she said in her autobiography about her first name:
When my father saw me he said to my mother, “Let me name this one and you may name all the others.” And so he named me and there were never any others. Mazo had been the name of a girl to whom he once had been attached.
“Everly” is hot…”Beverly” is not. It’s a one-letter difference between fashionable and fusty.
If you’re sensitive to style, you’ll prefer Everly. It fits with today’s trends far better than Beverly does.
But if you’re someone who isn’t concerned about style, or prefers to go against style, then you may not automatically go for Everly. In fact, you may be more attracted to Beverly because it’s the choice that most modern parents would avoid.
If you’ve ever thought about intentionally giving your baby a dated name (like Debbie, Grover, Marcia, or Vernon) for the sake of uniqueness within his/her peer group — if you have no problem sacrificing style for distinctiveness — then this list is for you.
Years ago, the concept of “contrarian” baby names came up in the comments of a post about Lois. Ever since then, creating a collection of uncool/contrarian baby names has been on my to-do list.
Finally, last month, I experimented with various formulas for pulling unstylish baby names out of the SSA dataset. Keeping the great-grandparent rule in mind, I aimed for names that would have been fashionable among the grandparents of today’s babies. The names below are the best results I got.